Lack of local authority over the Missouri River basin "guarantees that the politics over the river are at best dysfunctional and at worst counter-productive," says Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator.
Few people think about the river's politics until it breaks free of its banks and they're looking to cast blame, added Kerrey, who spoke recently at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as part of UNL's Heuermann Lecture series. His talk was titled "Conflict and Resolution on the Missouri River."
Blame for this year's catastrophic flooding has fallen largely on the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, and Kerrey acknowledged that if he were still an elected official, he likely would have joined in the finger pointing.
That may not be fair, Kerrey said. Historically, he said, the Corps has managed the basin well, but there's no way to completely tame this "big, wild and frightening" 2,341-mile long Missouri, the continent's longest and most violent river.
"The problem is the residents of the basin through which this river flows have no public
authority charged with the responsibility of resolving the constant conflicts we humans have over the uses of the river's water," Kerrey said. "We have delegated that authority to a number of federal agencies.
"This, in turn, guarantees that the politics over the river are at best dysfunctional; at worse they are counter-productive," he added.
The 2011 flood resurfaced these politics, but they're not new, Kerrey said.
Kerrey offered a brief history of the land, the river, the politics and the law, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940 confirmed that the U.S. Constitution gave Congress broad authority to develop the nation's rivers for navigation, hydropower, irrigation and recreation, as well as to restrict the rights of private owners of riverside land.
Congress responded in 1944 with the Pick-Sloan Act, which "had a larger economic, social and environmental impact on the Missouri River basin than any other act by Congress," Kerrey said.
"It transformed the economy of the region from one where agricultural production could be wiped out by too much or too little water to one that dependably produced food for the country and the world. It added more low-cost, clean power production for business and homeowners," he said. "It provided man-made lakes and fisheries that brought more tourism and jobs. It reduced the frequency of floods that interrupted commerce and lives. It made navigation possible by lowering the cost and increasing reliability."
Although the law's impacts have been largely positive, it's time for a new approach.
Kerrey said a better way to manage the river may lie in a proposal made in 1953 by one of his Nebraska predecessors in the U.S. Senate, Hugh Butler, who suggested a change in federal law that would have given the basin's 10 states more authority over the river through a compact. Butler died in 1954, and the legislation never passed.
Building on Butler's plan, Kerrey suggested a Missouri Basin Commission. "It would not end the conflicts" over the river's use. "It would allow conflicts to be resolved. This is extremely important to do and next to impossible under current law."
Each of the 10 states would be represented on the commission, as would the Native American nations. Decisions would be made by majority, not by consensus, and voting power would be apportioned among states by the percentage of the state that drains into the basin.
Nebraska is the only one of the 10 states in which 100% of the drainage goes into the Missouri basin.
Kerrey said he also would like to assure the states have control over revenue generated by hydropower in the basin. "At some point the feds are likely to steal this money from us; better to use it ourselves for the benefit of our basin," he added.Kerrey said the commission would provide a more transparent management process than now exists, but, he emphasized, people also must understand the river still will, on occasion, wreak havoc.